12/05/2011 10:07 am ET Updated Feb 04, 2012

When Customers Attack: Comments and the Web

The thing about customer service is that we've all had experiences where something didn't work out quite right. The first thing we wonder -- is it us? Did we do something wrong that engendered a bad customer experience? The next thing we wonder -- maybe it's an isolated experience? Perhaps it's just one bad sales person, or a day of too many issues that pushed the shop over the edge.

Odds are, you've just written off the experience to the luck of the draw and moved on.

But today -- the web has changed all that, for both customers and businesses. And there's no area that I've found more telling than that of retail eyeglass and prescription lens sales.

My first experience on the Upper West Side of Manhattan was so terrible, with sales help being nasty, lenses cut incorrectly twice, and then a stunning bill at the end -- that I assumed it must have been a singular experience. But a quick search on Google finds that there is a pattern of unhappy customers at this store.

Here are a few of the quotes:

"Wow, giving this place even one star is WAAY too much."

"The people were rude. Avoid this place at all cost."

"This entire experience has been awful and ridiculously frustrating!"

"I had perhaps one of the most unpleasant life experiences at -- name of chain --"

"I will be demanding a refund or making a VERY BIG COMPLAINT/taking legal measures"

"When you walk into the store, your presence is always treated as an annoyance and the 3rd or 4th priority of the person working behind the counter."

There are pages and pages of these. I'm not going to name the chain, because I hope that as a careful customer you're searching Yelp, CitySearch, Google Reviews -- or any of the many sites that invite consumer feedback.

The point is, one unhappy customer is understandable. Two is unfortunate. But when you're getting two stars or less across the board -- if management doesn't know that the handwriting is on the wall, then you can pretty much imagine what will happen as more and more potential customers have a smart phone with web access in their hand as they stand outside your store. Before they walk in, they check you out -- and a raft of bad reviews means they're going to walk away.

So -- when it comes to eyeglasses and lenses, is this a systemic problem or just a chain with bad management. A quick search on Google Maps shows the Upper West Side dotted with chains and 'deals' that include $20 eye exams and $99 frames and glasses offers. But at chain after chain, and even with many of the locally owned shops the reviews show a pattern of lies, nasty employees, and short-tempered interactions with customers.

A brief walk to a nearby store, with a better track record, confirmed what I'd suspected. Offers and deals notwithstanding, lenses and frames were going to cost $350 or more for my son, who tends to eat glasses for breakfast.

Which leads me to a conclusion that I had never before considered? After all, trying on eyeglasses is a personal experience that you want to have with a professional. But he'd already had his eyes examined (that was covered by insurance at a regular optometrist). So with a choice of chains and local stores -- and costly purchase with mostly unhappy customer reviews -- I turned to the web.

Can you buy glasses on the web? Will they fit? Will they be of good quality? Well, at glasses start at $6.95 (yes, you read that right!). So after uploading a picture of my son taken with PhotoBooth, we spent about 15 minutes 'trying on' glasses -- and found a pair he liked, that would be created to his prescription specifications and shipped in less than two weeks. With shipping, a polycarbonate lens, and anti-glare coating the whole thing came to $37.00.

So -- a word to the wise. I never thought I'd be buying glasses online. Then again, I never thought I'd be buying shoes online and now I buy all my shoes from Zappos. So if your customers are posting a steady stream of complaints about your industry, and you're not doing something major to make a change, then you can expect it's just a matter of time before they decided they'll shift to a model with lower costs, better customer support, and less bait-and switch pricing.

Oh, and did I check the customer comments about before I ordered? You bet I did. Customers love them. Tons of warm, positive, authentic comments. A few zingers, but I expect that. Overall -- if my experience is anything like the others who've commented, I may never buy glasses or frames in person ever again.